Are We Marching Towards a Strike in Baseball?

It hasn’t happened since 1994: a total stoppage of work in Major League Baseball that crippled the league and made fans turn away from the game. The 1994 strike devastated the season for several franchises on the rise such as the young Indians squad that featured Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, and Manny Ramirez. It killed the run that could have save the Montreal Expos from moving to D.C. as they were one of the best teams in baseball that year. The team never recovered in the 1995 season, and the fan base turned away from the team. Ten years later, the team was playing its baseball in D.C. and Montreal was left without a team.

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Over 20 years has past since the last time there was a work stoppage in Major League Baseball. The game’s profits have soared to $10.7 billion just last season alone. The game now has a global reach. So why are there rumblings that there may be a strike looming after the CBA between the Players’ Association and the League runs out in 2021? The answer is more complex than you think.

Let’s start with player salary. MLB does not have a salary cap, so there are no limits on the potential that a player could earn during their careers. So why should salary be reason to strike? It isn’t so much a factor of what a player could potentially earn, but when. The salary arbitration process and the six years of service time is a major concern. Players typically earn the league minimum for the first three years of their career before they can begin to leverage their success into larger salaries. While they are being paid through arbitration, it is often below what a free agent with similar numbers would make on the open market. After six years under this system, players may enter free agency. The issue then becomes when then enter free agency.

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If you are lucky to enter the free agent market at, let’s say, 26 such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado did this offseason, then you are set up for a mega payday. You are just entering your prime which means that your production should be matching the top salary that you are earning. If you are entering the market in your 30s, well, buckle up. The game has drastically changed within the last four years. Players entering the free agent market in their 30s back in the 2000s and going through 2015 were set up to land long term contracts at top dollar. The Tigers gave Victor Martinez four-years, $68 million in 2015 when he was 36. Carlos Beltran was 35 when he was a free agent in 2012 and still managed to rack up $87 million all the way through 2017.

Those days are gone now. If you are over the age of 30 and entering free agency, your chances of landing a big deal are slim to none. Only 7 30+year old players in 2017 received free agent contracts of more than 4 years in length. Okay, fine, teams don’t want to give big contracts to aging veterans. I get that. But, instead of teams simply not giving out big deals to these players, they are simply not employing them or forcing them to take undervalued contracts. I will give you an example:

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Player A here has a career .287 batting average with 231 Home Runs and 775 RBIs. He hit a solid .276 last season with 16 Home Runs and 64 RBIs. He is currently 33 years old. Now, guess what contract he received. Whatever you just guessed is completely wrong because all he received was a minor league contract with $3 million non guaranteed with Cleveland. It’s Carlos Gonzalez. There has to be a middle ground between good players in their 30s receiving fair contracts and those same players receiving just a minor league deal. Gonzalez said it best when he was introduced with the Indians in Goodyear:

“It’s almost like football: There’s no middle class. You’re either making a lot of money or you don’t make much. … Hopefully, it doesn’t stay that way because we’re not talking about money, sometimes you can just destroy a player’s career. A guy who can still play and doesn’t get the offer that he deserves, that can end a career. That’s more important than anything.”

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And that is just the tip of the iceberg. This does not even include a discussion on Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel who are two of the best pitchers in the game. They are still free agents and the MLB season has already officially started. Jason Kipnis of the Cleveland Indians recently spoke to Jason Lloyd of The Athletic about free agents in their 30s:

“You’re starting to see where the only guys that are getting paid are the superstars and the young ones, the very young ones,” Kipnis said. “Guys along the lines of a Keuchel, Kimbrel, these guys who have been really good players for a long time, these guys belong in MLB. It’s supposed to be the best players in the world and those guys are part of it. I get if their number is too high, I think they need to take a look if they want to keep playing to bring their number down. But at the same time, guys aren’t being allowed to finish their careers. They’re not being allowed to find work when they’ve absolutely earned the right to.”

The balance of contracts and finances are completely inconsistent throughout the league right now. When you combine that with outspoken players and a recent article by Emily Waldon in The Athletic about the incredibly low pay of minor league players throughout baseball, the division between MLB and the players is growing wider every day.

And salary is just one topic in an ever complex discussion that is occuring before the CBA is up. You have multiple rule changes that the Commissioner’s Office wants to implement. There are negotiations concerning the length of the season with players wanting to shorten the season to get more rest and the owners wanting to keep the length the same to keep their profit margins. There are $10.7 billion in profits for the League and yet pay for young players is a concern. There are talks of expansion teams as well as conversations about modifying service time. There are concerns that the current draft pick system incentives teams tanking and not spending money, which leaves players unemployed and only a select handful of teams being competitive during the season. Then there are the fans who are realizing how expensive it is becoming to take the family out to a ballgame.

Across the board there are major issues that both parties need to sort out.  The NBA had their lockout not too long ago. Guard Derek Fisher said it best during their lockout:

“Everyone loses if we don’t reach an agreement, that’s something that I think has always been understood. I will say we are not apart in terms of an agreed urgency on getting a deal done.”

The owners and the league realize this. That is why this spring many teams have been locking up their young stars in order to keep good faith and hopefully smooth over talks with the younger players that will ultimately make up the core of Major League Baseball under the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. So far, Alex Bregman, Paul Goldschmidt, Blake Snell, Mike Trout, Eloy Jimenez, Ryan Pressley, and Brandon Lowe have all received contract extensions in the final week and a half of spring training. Regardless, there are troubled waters and tough times ahead. And the players that are free agents before the CBA is up in 2021? All they can do is just hope and pray.

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“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous or scared,” Kipnis said. “You’re just not seeing guys above 30 get deals anymore, or at least the deals they thought they were going to get. … Without a great year, I don’t expect next year to be making the same I’m making this year by any means. But I do expect to be playing this game of baseball and the fact that’s in jeopardy is unsettling to a bunch of guys.”

A strike is looming over Major League Baseball.

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